Imagination: the power that creates

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written about imagination as the power that sees and the power that connects. However, “creativity” is probably the definition most people would offer if asked to define the essential power of the human imagination. We live in a world that values creativity, especially as artificial intelligence, automation, and out-sourcing have many of us wondering what we can offer that a computer cannot.

But what exactly is the imagination doing when it creates? Is it summoning possibilities ex nihilo? Is it the supreme act of self-expression, revealing the individual’s unique and irreplaceable vision of the world? Is it a noble act of defiance, flouting convention and group-think? The poets and philosophers of Romanticism often described the imagination in these terms, and their creative, tortured heroes (Faust, Manfred, Frankenstein, etc.) are the forebears of our cultural instincts–at once ennobling and devastating–about imagination’s creative powers.

All that is to say, we often associated creativity with divergent, individualistic thinking, and we often value creativity precisely because it positions the creative individual against the conventional masses. However, while the isolation or elevation of a creative individual is a common result of creative thinking, it is neither necessary nor even desirable for those who believe imagination can exist for the common good.

The traditions of Christian philosophy, along with contemporary psychology and neuroscience, argue that something far subtle happens when a human mind “creates,” and with their corrective, we can begin to see how creativity is one of the most significant gifts human beings can offer to one another, to creation, and to the creating God whose image we bear.

As I prepared for my recent seminars on imagination, I came upon a number of interesting studies that suggest creativity is far more like expertise than intelligence. In other words, while an intelligent person will be able to manifest his or her smarts in a variety of situations, expertise is much more narrowly cultivated. For example, I am an expert on Victorian fairy tales, a fairly good baker, but less than a novice when it comes to automotive repair, or plumbing, or theoretical physics. Creativity, like expertise, tends to be narrowly focused, and to emerge from sustained work in a field or medium. Thus, if I begin to make bread and realize I am out of wheat flour, I can probably come up with a creative solution (a mix of rye and amaranth, for example) that still produces a palatable loaf. Show me a problem in my car engine, however, and I will have no recourse but to drive to a mechanic and pray for the best.

This research confirms what poets, philosophers, and others have said about creativity for centuries: that is operates according to law. This seems like a paradoxical statement: isn’t creativity valuable precisely because it transcends or transgresses laws? In action, we often see creative thinkers rejecting convention, developing new methods, even defying prohibitions. However, even in these cases, a truly creative act follows law. It may be that the law is deeper than the apparent conventions. Perhaps it is a forgotten, hidden, or undiscovered law, but it is law nonetheless.

What do I mean by law? Consider the laws of the natural world, such as gravity. While we can think of gravity in terms of prohibition and punishment (i.e. “Gravity punished him for trying to fly off the top of the playground), it is also possible, and more just, to say that the law of gravity describes a force without which our world would lack structure or stability. Gravity holds matter together, as music and delight hold two dancers together. Knowing a subject, community, or material well, we know the laws according to which it operates. These laws may be moral or material. For example, while it may seem “creative” to make a pair of pants out of tissue paper (for example), if I know the “laws” of my materials and purpose, I will recognize that tissue paper tears easily, that trousers must withstand rigorous wear, and that my tissue-paper pants are not creative, but rather wasteful and abortive. A writer may create a fantasy world in which people have wings but no legs. That is fine and good, but if after three chapters the characters begin running footraces, the author has forgotten the law of her little world, and her creativity has faltered. Or I may develop a “creative” plan for a new social order, in which children are not allowed to see their parents until the age of twelve, but are instead raised by robots. This plot, violating universal laws about the relations between parents and children, might be original, but it is unlawful, and therefore a perversion of the imagination.

To be truly creative, then, we must acquaint ourselves with the laws of our materials and ends. This does not mean that we must accept human conventions and traditions without question: very often the true laws of our world are hidden beneath layers of corruption, greed, tyranny, or laziness. We may find ourselves creating as a lonely artist, a shunned prophet, or even a celebrated visionary, but such isolation (including the isolation of fame) is not what proves we are creative. Rather, it is when we can turn the powers of our imagination–powers of sight, memory, connection, integration — to the service of some good law that the shoddy veil begins to slip from our eyes, and we can see the world as it was meant to be. And more: if we work hard and long, we may have the privilege of sharing that vision with someone else.

If you’re interested in the relationship between law and creativity, I would encourage you to read some of the thinkers who have shaped my ideas about imagination so profoundly. A good starter set would include Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (Chapter 13), George MacDonald’s “The Fantastic Imagination,” and J.R.R. Tolkien’s, “On Fairy Stories.” In the meantime, I will leave you with my two favorite stanzas from Tolkien’s poem, “Mythopoeia.” Both images describe human creativity in all its humility and honor: men and women who take whatever materials are at hand, and work to shape them according to the law of love.

Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate

that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;

that seek no parley, and in guarded room,

though small and bate, upon a clumsy loom

weave tissues gilded by the far-off day

hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.


Blessed are the men of Noah’s race that build

their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,

and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,

a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.


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